Saturday, January 24, 2009

What is Feminist Sex?

Wow, so I've been REALLY bad at blogging for a while. A lot has changed for me over the course of the last few months. I'll have a lot to say about sex work and feminism in the next few weeks, but it's taken a while to solidify my thoughts into writing. I've also finished a rough draft of my honors thesis on feminist porn, so in lieu of a separate post, here's an edited excerpt from the paper:

"What remains to be developed is a view of sexuality that allows for the possibility of feminist change, even before the overthrow of the patriarchy." -Wendy Stock

I believe that both the anti-porn and sex-positive movements have made efforts to make egalitarian or feminist sex possible, but both have fallen short in figuring out what that is and how to make it happen.

The anti-pornography activists have attempted to criticize and undermine the current modes of sex to make way for a healthier kind of sex. However, they’ve come just short of saying what this new sexuality would be.

The sex-positive feminists have suggested that consent, self-knowledge, and mutual respect are necessary for a healthy sexuality, but they have not related these feminist ideals to the lack of them in popular culture (porn and film, books, news, etc). I see these as two sides of a single argument that have simply failed, as of yet, to meet in the middle.

So let's look at what egalitarian sex could be.

In order for egalitarian sex to happen, both partners must have equal value in the relationship. Their feelings, thoughts, desires, and sensations must have equal importance. Their orgasms must have equal importance.

They must both have the right to say yes and no to sexual acts. This consent should not come just from one partner striving to “get” something and the other giving in. They should each have an investment in the other’s pleasure and happiness, and in their shared positive experience.

Within these parameters, however, the sex itself could look like anything. If two heterosexuals were both interested in, for instance, an S&M scene where the woman hits the man with a paddle and tells him he’s been bad, that sex act could happen, but with certain prerequisites.

They would need to talk about it beforehand, share with each other what they wanted to do and find out if there was a mutual interest. They would need to negotiate specifically what was to happen. They would need to have some contingency for either partner changing his or her mind midway through the act, like a safe word. They would need to periodically check in with each other to make sure they’re both enjoying what’s happening.

The S&M community has actually made a great contribution to this dialogue about egalitarian sex, encouraging careful negotiation, mutual respect and caring, continued consent, and concern for psychological well-being. Kink.com, easily the foremost producer of BDSM pornography, has some of the most rigorous filming guidelines for directors that I’ve seen.

In addition to several rules outlining exactly what constitutes consent and ensuring that the models continue to have it throughout every scene, they require an interview with the submissive partner at the beginning of each film. In this interview he/she is asked about how he/she feels about what’s about to happen and asked to consent to it. This consent is shown (for once) not just to the authorities, but to the viewers.

So long as a mutual respect and care for another's well-being is present and all partners have the opportunity to state their desires and to say no to sex, even extreme BDSM porn and sex can be egalitarian.

Although it involves a narrative of submission and dominance, the sex act described above (with the paddle and the discussion) does not harm either participant. It is not predicated on an assumption of male privilege. If there are gender dynamics at play, they can and should be discussed and addressed as part of the negotiation over sex.

And gender dynamics will play a part in sex. Nobody is suggesting that we can banish patriarchy tomorrow. Until it is fully gone, of course it will affect our desires and the ways we act on them.

I frankly see nothing wrong with a conscious and open exploration of eroticizing the patriarchal patterns that oppress us. Taking a pattern in life (say, for instance, the systematic domination of women by men) and turning it into something erotic can be a way of psychologically controlling it, of regaining power over it until you are able to live with it without fear.

I don’t think we can suggest that people shouldn’t do this. It can be a very powerful psychological tool when done, as mentioned, carefully and consciously. I don’t buy the idea that eroticizing something automatically means you don’t question it.

That would suggest, as Catharine MacKinnon dismisses, the idea that “having sex is antithetical to thinking.” (MacKinnon, 17) I think anything we do without question is likely to be a problem, and understanding things as erotic is just another thing we can choose to question.


Cross-posted at Paper Cuts and Plastic.

4 comments:

Cadiz said...

"Taking a pattern in life (say, for instance, the systematic domination of women by men) and turning it into something erotic can be a way of psychologically controlling it, of regaining power over it until you are able to live with it without fear."

So a free pimp for every feminist and we are all set,

Fear often is a girl's best friend.

SnowdropExplodes said...

I'm a little confused by this piece, because you start off by saying:

The sex-positive feminists have suggested that consent, self-knowledge, and mutual respect are necessary for a healthy sexuality, but they have not related these feminist ideals to the lack of them in popular culture (porn and film, books, news, etc).

and then make the exact case that sex-positive feminists make. It always puzzles me when people try to find a "middle ground" between the position of the anti-porn, anti-prostitution, anti-certain types of sex argument, and the sex-positive arguments, because as far as I can see, the sex-positive debate is already at that middle ground.

It simply isn't true that sex-positive feminists ignore issues of how sex is portrayed in the media - especially porn. One of my earliest posts as a sex-positive feminist/feminist-ally was considering what messages about objectification are contained in varying types of pornography: "Object versus Commodity" (and a later addition to this, Hardcore & Softcore Revisited"). Other common topics in sex-positive blogging are the relation of porn to sex-education (sex-positive conclusion - porn is not good sex-ed, but could be a useful way to talk about what NOT to do - or to talk about the hours of preparation a porn performer has to go through before zie steps in front of the camera), the relation of sexual fantasy (e.g. as conveyed in porn) to real life and to real life attitudes towards the opposite sex, discussion of mainstream media's sex-negative portrayals, and frequently picking up on transphobic, homophobic or other sex-phobic news stories. The middle ground you claim doesn't exist is where sex-positive feminists already are!

Oh yes, and "mutual respect" - not always necessary for healthy sex: check it out. (that post has a trigger warning at the head, so caution is advised). As long as all those involved know what they're getting emotionally and are happy with that, I think it's "game on".

aviva said...

@Cadiz: I'm fairly certain that's not what papercuts is saying. Obviously not everyone wants to interpolate patriarchal domination into their sex life. However, if one were into domination play (where the man is the dominant one) that wouldn't automatically make one a bad feminist.

@Snowdrop: I can't speak for papercuts but to me "As long as all those involved know what they're getting emotionally and are happy with that, I think it's "game on"." is the definition of "mutual respect" as regards sex play. I think how respect is determined oscillates depending on what all involved parties want from any given sexual exchange. That said, I look forward to reading the other posts you linked.

papercutsandplastic said...

Cadiz, I'm not saying we shouldn't have a reality-based idea of where these kinds of attitudes or desires come from. Yeah, patriarchy is there and it's scary. If you're totally paralyzed by fear, though, it's not possible to do anything productive. We want to create change, and whatever it takes to enable women (and men!) to do that is fine by me. I just think we just need to be conscious of the subtext of our desires instead of try to control or eradicate them. That only leads to repression (and oppression!) and pain.

Snowdrop, you're right that many sex positive feminists have thought and written about the problems in porn. Now,I have seen sex positive feminists dismiss concerns about the content of porn and heard the argument that we can't criticize any one kind or representation of sex because it might stamp on someone's expression. However, that's only one part of a wide body of work and debate.

Anti-porn feminists have also done some writing about what sex could look like and the problems of building one's own sex life around an ideology that rejects gender power dynamics. The Wendy Stock quotation is from a book called Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism.

That is the tricky thing about trying to find a middle ground here. I don't mean to make sweeping statements about every writer on each side of the debate. My whole point is that this issue is more complicated than a binary argument could ever encompass.

The problems I see on both sides come a lot from off-hand rhetoric, as opposed to the blog posts and papers where each side carefully addresses the other. There's a lot of vitriol. I make no claim to know where the conflict started, but it's vicious.

The way I see it, both sides think the ways we have, talk about, and portray sex are problematic, and they're problematic because of the patriarchy. While I do disagree with the outlawing of pornography (dammit, Great Britain), I think the anti-porn feminists are right to agitate about some really awful messages in all kinds of porn. I also think the sex positive feminists are correct to defend women's sexual expression and to claim the sex industry as one of potential.

I promise I'll clarify some of my positions as we go along. I suppose trying to excerpt a 40-page thesis in a blog post automatically leaves lots of things out.

Thanks for the comments!